Musical chairs 

Boulder buddies ban boundaries in favor of unpredictability

If you get out much, chances are you’ve seen most or all of the musicians in the Boulder quartet Zilla play in Missoula before. The band’s big name is drummer Michael Travis, who came through the Garden City not long ago with String Cheese Incident, and also with Zuvuya, a band that features yet another Zilla member, Jamie Janover. If Janover’s name doesn’t quite ring a bell, his dulcimer will. Janover is the 2003 National Dulcimer Champion, and he’s put mallets to strings for the likes of Phish, Bela Fleck, G. Love and The Slip. You may also remember the keyboard sensations of Steve Vidaic, who fueled the dance funk of The Motet back in the day when the Blue Heron still held shows. Toss in Aaron Holstein on guitar and Zilla is ready to attack Mothra. Attaching instrumental qualifiers to each member of Zilla is something of a fool’s errand, however, because the band trades instruments the way a capricious 7-year-old might choose which pony to ride on a vacant carousel. On stage, Travis will set the drums aside to pick up the guitar or the bass, Janover will give the dulcimer a rest in favor of the drums, and Holstein will jump from bass to guitar. Aside from the irresistible showiness of a band whose members can play each others’ main instruments with such dexterity, this arrangement can also lead to three drum kits banging out jungle percussion at once.

The music of Zilla picks up just about where Zuvuya leaves off; the jazz fusion roots remain strong, while occasionally giving way to funk or world beat offshoots. According to the band, Zilla’s sound is a product of “a mystical relationship with improvisation and spontaneous composition.” That’s a fancy way of saying “jam band,” but in truth, Zilla offers something much different from the output of the legions of modern jammers who sprouted up after bugging out to Lawn Boy. Zilla’s jam is more ambient, less aggressive in the never-ending-guitar-solo sense of the word, and more refined. It’s almost like listening to a phenomenal trance DJ who can’t completely shake his funk shoes. The difference, of course, is that Zilla members have opened up infinitely more room to maneuver than that trance DJ could dream of, because they’re playing live instruments and can change direction in a snap, into the next groove in half the time it would take our hypothetical DJ to get his next record on the turntable. Listening to a live Zilla show, one might find that certain moment in the jam when, out of nowhere, everything slows down and the bottom just drops out. While this is standard DJ fare, it doesn’t seem like a noise that four human beings should be capable of making all together with such spot-on tightness—but then, there’s a lot about Zilla that doesn’t seem possible. How, for instance, can a band conjure manifestations of Sun Ra, the Allman Brothers, Beethoven, Paul Oakenfold and Stevie Wonder all within a matter of minutes? The answer is that Zilla hasn’t created any boundaries for itself, except perhaps for the loose idea that whatever comes out, people should be able to dance to it. Best of all, here is a band that is unpredictable. They kind of have to be, given that one of their most prominent instruments is the dulcimer. But beyond the instrumentation, the joy of Zilla lies in that strange paradox that makes for the best music, movies and art—you know where it’s going, but at the same time, you don’t. If this sounds a little too “new agey” for your taste, at least on paper, witness this band in person and then get back to me. Zilla will lend itself to dance, thought, and most importantly, the thrill of not knowing what’s coming your way next. You might be able to capture a similar suspense by walking down a busy street with a blindfold on, but nine out of 10 doctors prefer Zilla.
Zilla plays at the Top Hat at 10 PM on Thurs., Jan. 15. $7.

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